Searching for clues in a curious, imperfect record

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Well, maybe I’m just a nerd, but I find board meeting minutes fascinating. Last week, as I was reporting about Janis Lane-Ewart leaving her position as executive director of KFAI, I poured through the KFAI board meeting minutes, in search of clues as to what was really going on.

As historical documents, minutes are an invaluable archive of what the internal (and external) struggles of an organization might be. And in the digital age, with many organizations and government agencies making the minutes available on the web, they are incredibly useful in giving insight of what the issues and key stakeholders are. At the same time, they are an imperfect record. They only tell part of the story. Obviously, it’s better to actually go to the meeting (or watch a live stream or listen to an audio recording,) but that’s not always possible if you don’t know that you are going to be writing about it in advance.

Like actually going to board meetings, the experience of reading the minutes can be achingly dull, but every once in a while, there will be some kind of intense drama that is described as happening, retold in a very mundane, undramatic fashion. Unlike a news report of a meeting (which also can be boring), the minutes don’t give any context to the building controversies. They don’t describe people’s tone of voice or the emotional state of the people speaking. Minutes don’t spell out for you which was the most interesting part of the meeting — they describe every detail of what happened, putting as much importance on something like approving the minutes from the last meeting as they do to a shouting match between board members.

One interesting thing that I found as I was reading the KFAI minutes was another drama that has been happening at the station over the past year. I had heard something of the controversy a few months ago, but in reading over the minutes, I saw how volatile the controversy over an Eritrean radio program at the station had become. A group of people from the Eritrean community was unhappy with the program, believing that the show’s creators were only telling about state-sponsored news, as opposed to what was really happening in the country. The minutes get to the level of Shakespearean drama, with large groups of people coming into the meetings to make their case, writing passionate letters of dissent, etc. 

In both stories — that of Lane-Ewart’s departure and the story about what is going on within the Eritrean community — you can’t know everything from the board meeting minutes. You need to interview people involved to find out some of the background, and even then you might still not find out the truth. And yet, the board meeting minutes are an important piece of the puzzle, and it’s a testament to living in a free, democratic society that we are able to access such documents.